Let the Outline Flow
By Lenny Kraft
Outlines: some writers hate them,
some writers love them.
I learned early on that I belong
to the second group: before I start writing, I want to know what's ahead. If
you are reading this article, chances are that you at least think an outline
might be useful in your work. Perhaps you have already discovered which
style of outline suits you best, or perhaps you are still trying to figure
out how to discover your kind of outline. If that is the case, you are where
I was for a long time. I experimented with a number of different approaches,
such as the line-per-scene outline, the action-and-motivation-per-scene
outline, and the phase outline (http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue%2015/phase.htm).
None of them felt really comfortable, and eventually I figured out why: all
of these methods forced me to break down the story into pieces that felt too
small. I don't think in scenes or in phases. For me, the smallest unit of
the story is longer, more along the lines of a chapter. And once I'd
realized this, I soon worked out my own approach to outlining, the one that
finally feels natural.
For the sake of ease and having a
nifty name, I am going to call it the flow outline. The flow outline might
help you if you often get stuck deciding where one scene ends and the next
begins. It could also guide you into putting just the right amount of detail
into your outline -- not so much as to bloat it, but still enough to easily
visualize the action. Finally, and this might surprise you as it did me,
it's fun. Outlining is not just a chore for me anymore, but a part of the
creation process that I actually enjoy.
If you have decided to give the
flow outline a try, here is what to do.
Imagine you're talking about your
story to an interested listener.
That's basically it. Just talk
about it and retell what happens. Not in the same detail as in the actual
manuscript, but enough so that your listener understands what's going on.
Here is an example from the story that I'm currently working on:
Chapter 13: Braron POV. They arrive in one
of the front-line cities. As all these cities are built the same way, Braron,
with Enariel in tow, quickly finds the house of the commander. He asks to be
let in and after waiting for a moment they enter. The commander is sitting
at a map table and looking rather condescending. Braron explains that he is
here to catch an ork, and the commander counters that the king has never
given an order like that before. Braron gets angry, but before he can give a
fierce reply, Enariel cuts in. He and the commander greet each other like
old friends and Braron understands that the commander was trained by Enariel.
He also learns that they haven't had an attack in two weeks and are
expecting the next one any day. Braron feels slighted because they don't pay
attention to him, and so he interrupts and asks where they can stay. The
commander tells him to ask the quartermaster. So they go to the
quartermaster, who assigns them a room for two. Braron gets angry again,
because as a noble he deserves a single room, but Enariel sharply reminds
him not to quarrel in front of the common soldiers. Embarrassed, Braron
accepts the arrangement, but vows that he will get back at the elf for that.
They go to their room and unpack their gear...
It's not much of a narrative, but
somehow it flows, doesn't it? You can leave out everything that isn't vital.
I don't have to describe the setting here, or cite the dialogue. I just want
to get across the gist of the conversation. However -- and this is where the
imaginary listener comes in again -- you may want to make sure that you have
all the really good bits covered. After all, the listener shouldn't miss out
on the little gems in your story, should she? A stunning turn of phrase. A
special dress someone might wear. A real zinger in the dialogue. Everything
that you want to put in, but might forget between the outline and the first
While you're talking about your
story, you can insert breaks whenever they feel natural. For me, it's
usually shifts in time, place, or point of view. They might be actual scene
breaks, but I don't think about that. I treat a break in the flow outline as
a chapter break, and it's working well for me.
I have so far outlined two novels
in this way, and each time the result was a clean and intuitively appealing
structure that translated easily into the first draft.
I hope that this article will
entice you into giving the flow outline a try the next time you feel stuck.
Or maybe it will even help you discover your very own approach to outline
Let it flow!